Marcus Smart dropping points but becoming a better point guard
With no ado, here is the final SI Wooden Watch of 2013. Read on, and have a happy holiday.
Sometimes it's hard to remember that Marcus Smart is still new to the point guard gig. Little more than a year after he starting playing the position, Smart still turns the ball over at a too-generous clip (3.0 a game, compared to 3.4 last year), and his assists have actually gone down (3.8 this year compared to 4.2 last year). But his grasp of the mental aspects of the role has so impressed coach Travis Ford that Ford now lets the 6-foot-4 sophomore control the game as he sees fit. "This time last year, I would be calling the plays, and he would be trying to figure things out," says Ford. "Now he's calling all the plays, he's calling the defenses -- and we're a team that runs a lot of different plays and defenses. He's fully and totally in control of being a point guard."
Though he still has a lot to learn about the nuances of the position, Smart says he gained a lot of confidence playing against NBA guards Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard at the US National Team mini camp in Vegas this summer. "I know if I can play with those guys, who are going up against the likes of LeBron and Kobe Bryant," he says, "then I can play with anybody in the college game."
Smart's offensive performance this year has been variable, the high and lows reflected in two games against Memphis: In a 101-80 rout on Nov. 19, Smart scored 39, including five threes, and rocketed to the top of most lists like this one. In a rematch on Dec. 1, he scored just 12 and committed five turnovers -- while battling a stomach bug -- in a 73-68 loss. His quietest offensive game was a 75-43 win over Delaware State on Dec. 17, when he took just five shots, for eight points, and didn't take a single free throw. (He averages 7.1 attempts a game.) "I knew I wouldn't have to score 40 points in that game," he says. "I wanted to work on other things I needed to work on, like getting my assists up, and helping my teammates out."
When critics point out Smart's declining offensive output, Ford is quick to counter with the many things about him that go uncounted -- the quick feet and tireless will that make him a menacing defender; the presence of mind to stick with an defense that's working or get out of offense that isn't; the ability to find an open teammate without being able to see him through swarming defense. "The last couple games we've won, and he hasn't had to score quite as much," says Ford, "but he has done a lot of other things that effect the game tremendously. Those things aren't quite as glamorous as scoring 39 points, but the bottom line is, we're 11-1 against an incredible schedule and he's leading us in scoring and assists, he's up there in rebounds, he's (7th) in the country in steals." In Ford's mind, it's clear who is the best player in the land. "There are a lot of other great players out there this year, but there is not another player out there that affects the game as much as Marcus Smart affects the game, period."
1. Jabari Parker, Duke
In addition to all his other talents, Parker can seize the big stage as well as anyone in college hoops. Playing in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19 in front of 45 NBA scouts and a guy who's been known to rock that house on occasion, Bruce Springsteen, Parker delivered what you might call a power set in an 80-63 rout of UCLA: 23 points, 10 boards and five assists on 54 percent shooting. Parker through 11 games: 22.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 55 percent shooting.
2. Doug McDermott, Creighton
In wins over Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Cal this week, McDermott averaged 22.5 points and 10 rebounds and was a perfect 15-15 from the line. Thirteen of those gimmes came against the Golden Lions, and they represent, so far, the high-water mark in McDermott's campaign to get to the line more often this season. To date he's making it there 6.8 times a game (compared to 6.0 last season) and connecting at a higher rate: (.893 vs. .875).
Says McDermott on the art of getting to the charity stripe: "It really is just kind of putting your head down and hoping for the best." McDermott through 11: 24.8 points (2nd in nation), 7.5 rebounds, 49 percent shooting.
3. Julius Randle, Kentucky
A week after his season-worst show in a loss at North Carolina, Randle had a career-best day against Belmont -- a team that had won at North Carolina last month -- scoring 29 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. The only way the Bruins could stop Randle was to foul him, and they paid dearly for that strategy: Randle hit 13 of his 19 foul shots and was even better from the field, making eight of 10. We'll let teammate Jarrod Polson's assessment of Randle afterward -- "He was a beast today" -- stand for the 2013 part of the season. Randle through 12: 18.2 points; 11.3 rebounds, 54 percent shooting.
In a 75-43 win over Delaware State on Dec. 17, Smart took just five shots and made three for a season-low eight points, but two of the makes were threes, a positive sign after a dismal four-game stretch when he went 3-for-19 from the arc. In a stiffer test from Colorado on Dec. 21, Smart delivered 18 points, including two critical free throws in the final 23 seconds. (Alas, he made just one of five threes, putting his season average at shaky 32 percent.) Smart through 12: 18 points, 3.8 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 2.3 steals, 46 percent shooting.
5. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
In a 53-51 upset loss to Stanford on Dec. 18, Napier seemed to misplace his superhero cape: In the final 40 seconds he missed three shots that could have but the Huskies ahead, and on the final possession, he passed to Omar Calhoun for a last three-point shot instead of taking it himself. (Calhoun's launch bounced off the rim.) But at Washington four days later, 'Bazz was clutch again, grabbing six rebounds and scoring 15 of his 20 points in the second half, as the Huskies came back from a 14-point first half hole to win 82-70. Through 11 games, Napier leads the team in points (15.5), rebounds (6.7), assists (5.6) and steals (1.9) while shooting 47 percent from the field and 51 percent from the arc.
6. Jahii Carson, Arizona State
Sure, he took 16 shots to make five, and none were three-pointers, but Carson produced a fine line in the Sun Devils' 76-62 win over Texas Tech on Dec. 21: 16 points, 13 assists (against two turnovers) and seven rebounds. Through 12, Carson is leading ASU in points (19.6), assists (5.8), and three-point shooting (.500)
7. Russ Smith, Louisville
For the last of his team's overmatched early season opponents, Louisville coach Rick Pitino installed the Cardinals in a posh Miami beach resort and put them in "lockdown." In that game against Florida International, their final foe before Christmas and the Dec. 28 showdown with Kentucky, the Cards responded well, routing the Panthers 85-56. Smith made 6-of-12 shots, including four threes, for 18 points, his biggest offensive output since he scored 36 points in a loss to North Carolina on Nov. 24. Through 12 games, Smith is delivering a team-high 16.8 points and 5.0 assists and remains one of the best lockdown defenders in the land.
8. Marcus Paige, North Carolina
Now that P.J. Hairston is out of the picture for good and everyone is clear on the identity of the Tar Heels' most important player, Paige will be seeing a lot more of the box and one that Davidson threw at him after he scored 23 points, including five threes, in an 86-83 loss to Texas on Dec. 18. The Wildcats stifled Paige through three-quarters of the game, but he eventually found his groove; he scored 11 of his 17 points in OT. Worth noting: he was 8-for-8 from the line, making him a perfect 26-for-26 in the last three games. Through 11 games, Paige is averaging 19.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists and is 5.9 points (on .923 shooting) from the stripe. The rest of the team's foul shooting is a bleak .545.
9. Adreian Payne, Michigan State
This week the designated Sparty spot goes to the 6-foot-10 senior forward from Dayton. If Payne continues to play the way he did in Michigan State's 92-78 win over Texas on Dec. 21, it could be difficult for either of the previous place-holders, Gary Harris and Keith Appling, to wrestle it back from him. To review: In a game in which Appling struggled and the Longhorns threatened until the last few minutes, Payne grabbed nine rebounds and scored 33 points, including two baskets from the arc -- the three is a weapon he almost never deployed in his first three years -- and nine from the foul line.
Payne through 11: 18.1 points, 8 rebounds, and 53 percent shooting, including 45.7 from the three.
10. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Wiggins's habit of going offensively flat when the Jayhawks have the game in hand continued this week. In KU's one game, an 86-64 win over Georgetown on Dec. 21, Wiggins hit just three of 10 shots (two of them from the arc) and grabbed just one rebound to go with four assists and three steals. But he did have one of those "take-that" moments that makes his game so fun to watch: After the Hoyas' Jabril Trawik pounded him on the way to a basket midway through the second half, nearly inciting a brawl, Wiggins responded with a three in Trawik's face to stretch the KU lead to 15.
Through 11, Wiggins is still leading the team in scoring with 15.5 ppg, but he is getting a challenge for best KU freshman from 7-foot center Joel Embiid, who is averaging 10.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in just 20 minutes a game.
In the wings:
Nick Johnson, Arizona; Keith Appling, Michigan State; Chaz Williams, Massachussetts; Melvin Ejim, Iowa State; Casey Prather, Florida; Joe Young, Oregon; C.J. Fair, Syracuse; Aaron Gordon, Arizona; Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara; Jordan Adams, UCLA